Wake Forest lost at home to Duke tonight, 73-65, and I'm fairly happy with it.
I swore to myself when I started covering games for this site that I wouldn't bring up former coach Jeff Bzdelik. Of course, his legacy still haunts Winston-Salem. The roster, much like Lawrence Joel Coliseum, has been bare since he stepped down last summer. The game tonight against the second best team in the country, one of the oldest rivalries in the country, Wake-Duke was shown exclusively on ESPN3. This meant Mike Gminski keep calling them the Dookies, and the same three ESPN commercials were on every break. Youth has been an excuse in the losing basketball narrative for Wake Forest teams for the past...who's counting how many years. The three blue chip freshmen of Duke have made no excuses this season on the way to their fourteenth win of the season in Winston Salem tonight. And while the Deacs are still a relatively young team, it has been a fantastic change of pace over the past few games of coach Danny Manning's tenure that every game is no longer a referendum on the Wake head coaching job. Or if it has, Manning has not backed down yet from legends in coaching, facing Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski in back to back games and getting his teams ready to play and tough competitors in each.
Fresh off a close loss at home against Lousiville with Danny Manning's Deacs showing that they could hang with the big boys in the conference, Wake got off to a nice start with freshman Mitchell Wilbekin setting the tone on the first play of the game knocking down a long jumper off a screen. The Deacs got off to a quick 6-0 start holding Duke to poor outside shots, forcing turnovers, and defending extremely well. After the quick start Duke came back shooting hot and went on a 12-2 run before Wake was able to stop the bleeding and settle things down. Wake completely took phenom Jahlil Okafor out of the contest in the early going with double teams and help defense. Okafor didn't take his first shot until 5:47 remaining in the first half when he drew a foul from Andre Washington and knocked down two free throws. He didn't make a field goal until a putback on a broken play after pushing Dinos Mitoglou on the floor. Frankly speaking, in the first half matchup with Okafor and Devin Thomas, it was Thomas who came out squarely on top.
Most of the first half damage for Duke was done by Justise Winslow with 9 points on 3-8 shooting. Wake trailed by five at half 32-27. Like a classic Wake Forest team, the difference was made on the three point line, living and dying by the three. The three ball kept the Deacs in the game against Louisville and had them trailing in spite of playing a better first half against Duke. Wake dictated the pace, took better shots, and looked better everywhere except the perimeter. As a team that relies a lot on scoring from the free throw line, Wake was unable to get points with the shot stopped, as Duke only committed three fouls in the first half. Both teams spent a lot of time looking at the referees for calls, but the physical game was not tightly called.
The Deacs started the second half on a 7-2 run, tying up the ball game by turning over Okafor and watching Duke clank outside shots. Winslow came quickly to Duke's defense, though, hitting two quick threes to bring the Duke lead back to six. From there, Wake would not lead until the 6:04 mark in the second half. On the way there, the Deacs cut the lead to one with under 8 minutes to go after a couple big Hudson threes and a monster Codi dunk in transition. Quickly after gaining the lead, though, Duke went on a 13-2 run, getting an eight point lead back and sealing the game for Duke. Wake would cut the lead down to six before the fouling started with 40 seconds to go. Wake had stayed in the game to that point by keeping Okafor from dominating the scoreboard and limiting their own turnovers to a season low. Winning the turnover battle (11-13) against a genuinely great K-coached Duke team is no small feat, and Devin Thomas had four of the Deacs' seven steals himself. Duke also went on a four-and-a-half minute scoring drought in the middle of the second half. There was no rhythm to the Duke halfcourt game whatsoever. They benefitted from more second chance and off-rhythm points than most Wake opponents have this season.
Now that the game is over, I'll explain why the loss is still positive. Danny Manning, like the teams he coaches, is always active on the sidelines. What strikes me about this team is the lack of leadership from guards. By this, I don't mean to take away anything from Codi Miller-McIntyre, Cornelius Hudson, or Mitchell Wilbekin. Madison Jones doesn't add a ton of offense, effort and intelligence notwithstanding. There just isn't a player yet in the backcourt calling the shots. Part of that comes from the frantic pace of play, from consistently trying to break a press, or from quickly turning the ball over. But another part is that the Deacs play such team basketball. They're unselfish, fast, they have fun, and they're going to win basketball games this season.
What's becoming more apparent after watching each game coach Manning is at the helm is that his teams play disruptive defense. He doesn't let opponents run their sets and get into their games. Duke mostly scored early on via turnovers and quick baskets. For all of Duke's McDonalds All Americans, their superstar big name freshmen, for their deep bench with veteran leadership, and their hot start to the season, Wake was up to the challenge all night. When Duke stretched the lead out to eight or ten, Wake would force turnovers and play tight defense and make a run of their own and pull it back close.
When I was preparing for the game, reading some scouting reports and writing notes, I was fully prepared to stock this article with jokes about the Duke roster (Sulaimon the not so Magnificent, Justise Winslow sounds like the name of a Florida State D lineman, Jon Scheyer's glasses, "MP3" [insert joke here]). I didn't want to make those jokes because I felt like this was the biggest game I'd covered for this venerable website, and also a Suleimon the Magnificent joke seemed like one that Duke fans would like. Instead of trying to fit those jokes in this piece gracefully, I watched Andre Washington swat an All-American and run coast to coast and feed a weird alley-oop that turned into a pass and score, and Wake keep the game very close and a lot of fun to watch. Devin Thomas led the way for the Deacs with 24 points and 5 rebounds, while Justise Winslow finished with 20 and 7.
Before I heap too much praise on the Deacs tonight (they did lose), it's worth acknowledging the turnovers, lack of depth, the sometimes poor shot selection (keep shooting though, Mitch and Dinos!), the loss. But there's so much to like about this Wake Forest team. Mitchell Wilbekin's release. Cornelius Hudson's length and athleticism. Devin Thomas's undeniable improvement. Cornelius Hudson's hair. Danny Manning. Unlike the previous administration where victories sometimes felt like losses and losses felt like nothing, this team is fun to watch regardless of outcome. It's strange being 8-8 and 0-3 in the ACC, and still feeling lots of optimism.
We are going to be good again.